In Conversation with Author Michael Broyles

An interview with the author of Mavericks and Other Traditions in American Music.

Molly Sheridan: Obviously writing a book like this consumes a lot of your life, so I’m always curious to find out what attracts an author to a particular topic. So, why mavericks and why now?


Michael Broyles
Michael Broyles
Photo by Denise Von Glahn

Michael Broyles: This whole project started, oh, quite a few years ago. I’d been writing about American music and what always struck was that in our culture—and this is true not just in classical music but I think in popular music as well—we, that is Americans, have some sort of fascination with the individualist, the person that tends to go his own way, and in music you see this over and over again. That’s sort of the standard image of most rock musicians, but you see it in classical music too. People that we tend to revere most are those who seem to be somewhat different, who have struck out on their own. I began to look at it and I thought, “Well, here’s a topic. Since I’m writing about music, why not focus not so much strictly on these people but what it is about our culture that so fascinates us about that.” And that’s really what the book is about.

Molly Sheridan: Sort of that James Dean phenomenon…

Michael Broyles: Yeah, James Dean or do you remember the old commercial that was on TV for years of the Marlboro Man? Even the Lone Ranger, going back even further than that…

Molly Sheridan: You’ve been involved personally in music for a very long time. As you were writing this book, whom for you was the most striking? Who of the mavericks you encountered did you pick out or especially love. Music wise and also as a personality?

Michael Broyles: Well, one of the reasons I got started in this is Charles Ives has always been and remains one of my favorite composers. I’ve noticed his music; it’s like Beethoven, it wears. You never get tired, at least I never get tired, of Charles Ives. But a couple of other composers really stood out to me. I was somewhat but not entirely familiar with them. The first was Harry Partch. I’ve become a huge fan of Harry Partch and he’s not as well known as some of these other people—he created his own instruments, these huge things, 5 tons of instruments to move around—so he didn’t get that many performances. That was one. The other one that fascinated me was Meredith Monk. Interesting thing there is that most people in our culture don’t think of her as a composer. They think of her as sort of performance artist or a dancer or something like that, but she herself considers herself a composer. What she does is mostly with her voice and she does extraordinary things with it. I mean there are lots of others but those are just two. So many of these people I love the music of, going all the way back to William Billings in the 18th century, but those three—Ives, Partch, and Monk—especially stood out to me.

Molly Sheridan: What about when you look at it a bit apart from their music? You speak about the outsider, loner personality that was either naturally theirs or that they cultivated just because of the fascination that Americans have with that kind of thing. Was there anyone who particularly stuck out that way?

Michael Broyles: I think Ives, again. I’ll go back to Ives, because I don’t think he himself purposely cultivated anything. He was basically in some ways a shy man, but he knew what he wanted to do and I think he knew that he couldn’t write the kind of music that he wanted to and become a professional musician. What’s fascinating about Ives is that he became a businessman, and he was as successful in the insurance business as he was in the musical world [in the end]. And by successful I mean he not only made a fortune in the insurance business, and I really and truly mean a fortune, but he revolutionized it. He created a lot of new concepts and ideas that in the insurance word are still being used today. Ironically, I’ve talked to people that are in the insurance business, executives and so forth, and you mention the name Charles Ives and they’ll say, “Oh, yes, he created such-and-such for us.” Sometimes they don’t even know he was a musician.

Molly Sheridan: And the music community may know his background, but perhaps more with the attitude that, “Oh, insurance distracted him from composing music.”

Michael Broyles: Exactly. And Harry Partch, I love his music. He was amazing in that he was so steadfast in what he did, but it was almost as if he had to fail in a monetary sense. He was so at odds with his culture. I think had he not failed he might not have created as much music as he did. He was the true James Dean-type that was really rebelling all his life.

Molly Sheridan: After all of the research that you did for this book, do you have a working definition in your head of just what “American” music is for you?

Michael Broyles: No, I don’t. I’m not sure…you know this is something so many musicians, especially American musicians have tried to address. I think it was Aaron Copland who may have said that probably the best definition of American music is something written by an American. What has not worked have been many attempts by American composers to consciously sound American. The result is it comes out being self-conscience and not always entirely successful.

You grow up in a world and a culture and you absorb that society. I think if I were to go to, say, Europe and live in Germany for many years I might assimilate very much into that culture, but I think there would be something about me that would still be American. Bartók talked about that. He was Hungarian, of course, and he used a lot of Hungarian folk elements, but he said what really made him a Hungarian composer is that he absorbed this Hungarian folk idiom so thoroughly that he was not even conscious of it when he was using it, and I think that’s what makes an American composer truly American. They write in such different ways—you can go from John Cage to Charles Ives. So I don’t think there is one thing.

Molly Sheridan: Fair enough. There was one passage in your introduction that I wanted to get you to elaborate a little bit on. These lines: “First a composer was a maverick by default. Then it became a badge of honor to be one. Then it became lucrative. Finally it became a necessity.” I guess I’m most curious with the last few words there, but take as much of it as you’d like to.

Michael Broyles: Well, I’ll just quickly start at the beginning and then I’ll try and hit the end there. At the beginning just the idea of being a composer was almost completely alien to American society—this is going back to the 18th century. People didn’t think that way. There’ve been a lot of tune books published, which were a bunch of compositions—some secular, some sacred, most all vocal—but maybe ten compositions by Americans at that time. Most of these were just compilations from European sources. William Billings came out with his own book which had over 100 original compositions. In other words, ten-fold the amount that had even been composed!

Then as we move through time, it became sort of a badge of honor, this whole business of the individualist. But what I say at the end—”finally it became a necessity,”… in our artistic world today, unless you take a stance as being someone really unique and individual, it’s very hard to get noticed. You see this probably more in popular music than in classical music where there’s a little more adherence to a broad tradition. I do include Frank Zappa in this book at some length, but the patterns that these classical musicians were developing very early, for instance, in the 20th century, you see emerging really in popular music in the second half of the 20th century. Just think of any pop group—unless there is something unique about them, they tend to get lost. That’s really what I’m referring to there. This is ironic: The maverick has become the standard.

Molly Sheridan: And many of these points that you make, you say quite bluntly that they are a larger commentary on American society. For those inside the industry, especially composers, what would you hope they take away from this?

Michael Broyles: Well, I wasn’t writing this specifically with composers in mind, but if a composer does read it I guess I’d say persistence. The reason these people succeeded is because they persisted, in some cases obviously against some pretty big odds. That’s probably the key to it right there: Just be determined.

The book is about mavericks, but more than anything else it’s about what I call the maverick tradition, it’s about a dissonance between composers and American society. It’s the basis for writing this book. The question of why we as a society revere maverick types so much is really telling us about American attitudes and values. I’m writing it for people who are interested in learning more about American culture and society in general and that’s why the very first sentence of the book is, “This is a book about us.” As we said, I could have written about James Dean or something like that…

Molly Sheridan: Well, it’s interesting then that you picked this kind of music, especially now when so many people argue and debate about what relevance our particular musical culture has in connection with American society at large. It’s an interesting statement that we do reflect it and exist right along side.

Michael Broyles: I think I was lucky, because I started this book in the early ’90s–I had some side-tracks along the way–but I began to realize as I was getting towards the end that this is something that is being talked about. I think I was lucky. I hit something that was more and more talked about as I was working on it.

Molly Sheridan: I know this is an unfair question and I don’t really expect you to have an answer, but as you were researching this book is there anyone you noticed who’s coming up now that might be the next Charles Ives or Meredith Monk, continuing to move that maverick tradition forward?

Michael Broyles: Oh, let me think. I don’t think I do. That’s a good question. What I think is that it may not be someone who’s doing strictly music in an aural sense. We of course live in a very visual culture, and you begin to see these separate arts such as music and then visual things and theatrical and so forth, and I think it’s all coming together. You already see that on MTV and things like that. That’s why I have such a respect for Meredith Monk because she brings these all together. Our next artists, whoever they are…I really don’t have a name for you, but I think that’s were to look, not just what may be going on in a traditional concert but in someone who can somehow fuse these things into maybe a bigger and greater art.